RED WING – Two years ago, when the new owner of Red Wing Stoneware and Pottery made plans to revive the iconic Minnesota brand he had just purchased, his fans included local collectors who passionately trade in the crocks and jugs made here for generations.
In the space of a few months, the goodwill evaporated as the owner sued the collectors over trademark issues and the collectors opened their own $750,000 museum across the street from the business they celebrate — a potential competitor with the pottery’s own sales room for the attention of stoneware-seeking tourists.
Now Red Wing pottery owner Bruce Johnson plans to shutter his salesroom on Christmas Eve along with a coffee shop, Minnesota-themed gifts store and classroom. His announcement late last month came with a small-town twist as Johnson said he has been harassed and even threatened by people in town.
“I definitely fear for myself and my family and the more that comes out the scarier it gets,” said Johnson, the owner of Red Wing Stoneware & Pottery since 2013. The former owner of a health care analytics company that he sold in 2012, Johnson said he will continue to make pieces for sale online.
The closure has been met in Red Wing with widespread disappointment, said Arloa Bach, executive director of the Red Wing Visitors and Convention Bureau. Johnson’s claims of harassment left people feeling puzzled, she said.
“He puts out broad statements without specifics,” she said. “You can’t refute it. You can’t understand it. … He told me that he felt there was animosity and that people don’t want to work with him,” she said.
Bach said she was aware of Johnson’s concern that people were using his company’s trademark illegally. While assembling a local shopping guide last year, she said, she had to grant Johnson broad authority to oversee the use of words like “pottery” to satisfy his demands. Bach said she didn’t run Johnson’s arguments past an attorney because she simply wanted to get the shopping guide published on time.
Red Wing Mayor Daniel Bender did not return a call seeking comment. And the president of the Red Wing Collectors Society said he couldn’t speak, due to Johnson’s lawsuit. City Council Member Dustin Schulenberg said he heard that the pottery owner was claiming city officials were against him, and didn’t know what Johnson was talking about. “I felt blindsided,” he said.
Collector Larry Peterson, who operates an antiques shop in Red Wing and has a pottery collection of thousands of pieces, some worth five figures, said he originally supported Johnson’s attempts to revive the Red Wing Stoneware brand. His relationship with Johnson deteriorated as the new owner made “demands and requests,” said Peterson, who also sits on the board of the Collectors Society Foundation. He didn’t want to get specific, citing the ongoing lawsuit.
“It just became very uncomfortable for me,” he said.
Peterson said he has had disagreements with Johnson, specifically about the company’s history. Peterson said a labor strike in 1967 effectively shut down the original company and that Johnson’s enterprise is something entirely new. He said he has had “loud discussions” with Johnson about the company’s history, including in the presence of Johnson’s attorney, but said he never made any threats against him.
Peterson said the new Pottery Museum of Red Wing, which is completing its first full year of operation in its new location, drew some 15,000 tourists this year. Peterson said it shouldn’t be viewed as a rival to Johnson’s business.
“All we want to do is to educate and encourage, and we want to help him,” said Peterson.
Scott Gillmer, the previous owner of Red Wing Pottery, said he didn’t have any issues with collectors, but grew concerned several years ago as he learned about the plans of the Red Wing Collectors Society Foundation to build a nearby museum.
“In my opinion there was going to be some issues associated with that,” he said, citing the museum’s plans to sell Red Wing Pottery. “The crux of the issue really comes down to how do the two institutes coexist, and who has the rights to that name and that mark? And how is that used? That decision is heading toward the courts because they need to resolve it somehow.”
In the lawsuit he filed earlier this year in federal court, Johnson claims that the Red Wing Collectors Society Foundation has used his company’s logo without permission.
Johnson says his company filed for trademark protection of its Red Wing logo in 1997. The trademark was granted in 2001 and includes an image of a wing above the words “Red Wing Pottery,” according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Johnson in 2014 also filed for two additional trademarks, each of them stamps that appear on Red Wing Stoneware. Those applications have not yet been registered with the Patent Office, according to court paperwork.
The foundation hasn’t been deaf to Johnson’s complaints, changing the name of the museum from the Red Wing Pottery Museum to the Pottery Museum of Red Wing last year after Johnson protested. The suit alleges seven counts of trademark infringement, dilution, unfair competition and unjust enrichment, and asks for damages and attorney’s fees.
In their response, the foundation’s attorney says one registered trademark “appears to exist,” not three, and that they aren’t violating it.
The two sides met for settlement talks in September. After six hours, talks broke off without an agreement. The case is now headed to trial in U.S. District Court.
Like many people in Red Wing, City Council Member Peggy Rehder has a personal connection to the pottery: a relative was once a top official there. She said she’s “always had a personal interest in it,” but the news of the closure has been so puzzling that she doesn’t know what to make of it.
“I tried to do a little checking,” she said. “It’s very difficult to understand.”